The Korean War I
The Korean War I The Korean War was the defining event of my childhood. I was what was known as an inappropriate reader; that is, I was reading adult books at a very young age. These books were primarily history or political books with some adult novels thrown in. I became very interested in the progress of the war and, since it was communist aggression against a small nation, I became anti-communist. Over the next few years, this morphed into conservatism and, later, membership in the Republican Party. In other words, the war determined my life’s political stance. The Start of the War and the Pusan Perimeter On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) crossed over the 38th Parallel into South Korea. The greatly outnumbered Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) suffered heavy casualties and three days later, NKPA forces entered Seoul, the South Korean capital. On July 5, the first battle between American forces and the NKPA occurred. The 24th Infantry Division’s Task Force Smith, a battalion combat team from Japan attempted to delay the advance of NKPA forces near the town of Osan. The Americans were greatly outnumbered and poorly equipped and were unable to stop the North Korean advance. They were forced to retreat with heavy casualties. I remember seeing on our family’s TV, a tape of an American jeep loaded with soldiers speeding down a Korean road and being fired upon by the North Koreans. It was both exciting and tragic for an 11-year-old. For the next month of combat, American and ROKA forces were gradually forced to retreat, fighting a series of delaying actions and suffering heavy casualties. Finally, on August 1, the U.S. Eighth Army withdrew into a final defensive perimeter around the port city of Pusan. The Eighth Army, after deploying from Japan, had assumed command of all U.S., ROKA, and other United Nations forces. As more and more Allied forces from the United States and other nations arrived in Pusan, the Eighth Army directed the defense of the “Pusan Perimeter” against NKPA attacks during August and September. The Inchon Landing and Capture of Seoul But any nation that had General of the Army Douglas MacArthur as commander-in-chief of the Far East Command and, also, of the United Nations Command should expect military surprises. On Sept. 15, despite opposition from most military men, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, MacArthur directed an X Corps amphibious assault at Inchon, Seoul’s port city. This assault was especially difficult since the forces had to scale cliffs in order to reach Inchon. At the same time, the Eighth Army began its breakout from the Pusan Perimeter on Sept. 16. Their objective was to crush the NKPA between the two American forces. By Sept. 28, Seoul had been liberated by X Corps and a link up was established with Eighth Army. While many North Korean soldiers escaped, most NKPA units were destroyed. American and UN forces shifted from the defense of South Korea to the destruction of the North Korean regime. They continued to move swiftly and entered North Korea. On Oct. 19, the Eighth Army seized Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The NKPA mounted only very limited and generally ineffective opposition. Meanwhile, X Corps was withdrawn from Seoul and redeployed to northeastern North Korea. During the late fall and winter, UN forces were sprinting through North Korea and the soldiers were saying that they would be home by Christmas. However, as the forces got closer to the Chinese-North Korean boundary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began issuing statements that they would not tolerate the destruction of the North Korean regime. Finally, two army groups of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered North Korea, attacked and defeated the outnumbered UN forces in North Korea, inflicting heavy casualties. The Eighth Army was able to break contact with the Chinese and retreat into South Korea. X Corps was withdrawn by sea to South Korea where it joined the Eighth Army. Two significant battles during this period included the 2nd Infantry Division's withdrawal through the Kunu-ri gauntlet and the 1st Marine Division's heroic efforts in the fighting during the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines and the Retreat from the Chosin Reservoir Before Thanksgiving, the 1st Marine Division and other United Nations forces were ordered forward to the vicinity of the North Korean and Manchurian borders which were separated by the Yalu River. The forward Marine elements at the Chosin Reservoir were 125 miles south of the Yalu but before they could continue their advance they needed critical supplies. The Marines' main supply route from their rear support base at Hamhung to the Chosin Reservoir was 56 miles, and over this lifeline had to flow the men and materials. A bitter, sub-freezing winter had arrived, glazing the roadway with ice, freezing streams, and layering the ground with hard-crusted snow. I was now 12-years-old and delivering papers during this period. Our winter, like the North Korean winter, was bitter. Like most boys my age, I was given to daydreaming and I also had a father who had served as a marine in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Therefore, I became one of the marines trudging through the mud, ice and snow from the Chosin Reservoir. As I said this was a defining moment in my life. MacArthur ordered the advance to the Yalu for November 24, and units of the 1st Division moved north on the west side of the Chosin Reservoir through fields of snow. Aerial reconnaissance reported paths left by large numbers of troops, but no enemy forces were seen. The first contact for the Marines came on November 27, between elements of the 5th Marines and Chinese forces. Earlier, on the 25th, seemingly endless streams of Chinese forces had attacked the U.S. Eighth Army and the X Corps. Chinese assaults cut the Marines' main supply route separating the 5th and 7th Regiments from the rest of the division. The Eighth Army was by now in retreat, and the two isolated regiments were threatened with being overrun. However, the Chinese elected to launched attacks not against the United Nations units which by this time were in retreat, but against the 1st Marine Division, the only strong concentration of forces in the area. The Marines were assembled in four areas: Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri and Chinhung-ni. By dawn of November 28, faced with a determined enemy, and 20 degree below zero temperatures, every man went online with a weapon. With the reality of the situation and heavy attacks by the Chinese on November 28, there was no one saying: We'll be home by Christmas. Fighting at the defensive perimeter was initiated at Yudam-ni, masses of Chinese against companies and platoons of Marines. The ferocity of the attacks, described as human tonnage, overwhelmed a platoon of 24 men of Fox Company, 7th Marines, who were holding a critical position at the 4,000 foot high mountain pass on the road to Yudam-ni. That position held for nearly a week, and Captain William E. Barber would later be decorated with the Medal of Honor for heroism. Marines were forced off fighting positions, but would then counterattack. Headquarters and service support personnel, cooks, clerks, truck drivers, and a host of other non-infantry men, were engaged in close quarters fighting. Marine Corps close air support Corsairs blasted the Chinese at dawn, and then shifted to the Koto-ri area 25 miles south where enemy troop concentrations were massing. In two days the Marines had suffered the equivalent of a battalion in losses, 1,094 casualties, which included 871 killed, wounded or missing, the remaining casualties were due mainly to searing frostbite. The eight Chinese divisions, two armies, at least 80,000 men, were massed along a 25-mile front against the 1st Marine Division. In describing the intensity of the fighting, one Marine was quoted as saying, "There was the time when there was no outfit … you were a Marine, you were fighting for everybody. There was no more 5th and 7th: you were just one outfit. Just fighting to get the hell out of there!” The main supply route, broken and overrun at places, was critical for the Marines. The positions, like Koto-ri, had to be held, and hold they did, driving off repeated attacks. Colonel Lewis B. (Chesty) Puller, a Marine Corps legend, led his Marines in holding the ground. On November 29, just the forward elements of a convoy of Marines, Royal Marine Commandos and U.S. Army troops arrived with supplies. They had fought their way from Koto-ri, But a rear element of the column had been turned back under fire. Unfortunately, the bulk of the convoy had been overrun by the Chinese. One hundred and thirty Marines, soldiers and Royal Marines were captured. With the Chinese attacks repulsed, Marines now repaired the airstrip at Hagaru and awaited the December 1 arrival of C-47s which would bring in supplies and evacuate the wounded. As supplies flowed into Hagaru, decimated Army units began to straggle into the Reservoir perimeter. About 450 soldiers were issued Marine equipment and formed into a provisional Marine battalion. After four days on defense, two regiments the 5th and 7th, began the break out from the vicinity of Yudam-ni to redeploy to Hagaru. The 1st Battalion of the 7th Regiment seized the mountain pass and relieved the men of beleaguered Fox Company. They set out at night on December 1, and linked up with Fox before noon the next day. Carrying their wounded, the remainder of the two regiments moved out shortly after daylight on December 2. As they withdrew under cover of air and artillery, swarms of Chinese followed, but were diverted to heaps of trash which the Marines had discarded. Wounded, frostbitten, and ailing Marines, nearly 1,000 men of the 5th and 7th Regiments, were flown out of Hagaru before nightfall to hospitals in Japan. During the prior three days, some 1,750 casualties, most of them Army troops who straggled in from the battles east of the Reservoir, had been evacuated. By December 9, nearly 5,000 casualties were evacuated. The fight from Hagaru to Koto-ri began on December 6, with elements of the 7th again on the road. The decision was made to withdraw in a fighting mode with every piece of salvageable equipment. The provisional Army battalion took the left flank, 2nd Battalion of the 7th was on point, 1st on the right, and 3rd as rear guard. Tanks were up front to blast roadblocks. Overhead were tactical aircraft ready to deliver bombs and bullets in close support. There were an estimated 1,000 vehicles in the column. Only drivers, the wounded and a very few selected by unit commanders rode. Harassed by automatic weapons and mortar fire throughout the day, the column made slow progress as infantry skirmishes erupted. Chinese troops infiltrated and cut the column at night, and two blown bridges had to be repaired before they reached the Koto-ri perimeter during the morning of December 7. Supported by 76 aircraft, the 5th regiment fought a rear guard action out of Hagaru against stiff resistance. On the night of December 7, they entered Koto-ri. Air Force C-47 and C-119 transports continued the daisy-chain of resupply and evacuation of the wounded from the airfield at Koto-ri until the morning of December 8, when the regiments of the division and 1,400 vehicles moved out. Two battalions of the 1st Regiment would fight rear guard action. The 1st Battalion of the regiment deployed forward from Chinhung-ni toward Koto-ri to seize the high ground on the convoy's route. During a blinding snowstorm they ran into strong Chinese opposition and took heavy losses before they reached their objective. To compound the threat, the enemy had blown-up a bridge span along the route from Koto-ri at a cliff, which could not be bypassed. However, on the dawn of December 9, clouds lifted, the snow stopped, sun shone through, and the firepower of Marine Corsairs allowed the 1st Battalion to take their objective. Marine Corps engineers installed an airdropped bridge in three hours, and the column move forward. The first elements of the 7th Marines arrived at Hamhung on the morning of December 10, to hot food and warm tents. The last elements of the division did not arrive until the afternoon of the next day. For the first time in two weeks, since November 27, the men would sleep without fear of an enemy attack. But, that rest did not come without reflection, thoughts both on what they had done, and for those who had fallen at their side. Marine Corps losses were heavy. More than 700 had died, and there were more than 3,500 wounded and more than 7,000 non-combat casualties. But the Chinese had paid a heavier price—an estimated 25,000 killed, and more than 10,000 wounded. This retreat from the Chosin Reservoir or, as an anonymous marine labeled it, an “advance in the other direction” would become legendary in the history of the Marines and the Army.